Peter Shore — Labour’s forgotten prophet

Governments and faces change, the decades roll by, but one thing is ever present in British politics … the ‘will we, won’t we’ stay in Europe. Forty something years ago it was President De Gaulle saying ‘non’ after years of British vacillation about joining. Today it’s party leaders saying ‘perhaps’ on a referendum, some day, maybe. Yet for three decades, an East End MP was warning of the perils of Europe.

 

Peter Shore

Peter Shore

Today his name is all but forgotten. Healey, Wilson, Jenkins, Foot and Benn — all still familiar names to anyone with a passing interest in the Labour governments of the sixties and seventies, before Margaret Thatcher banished the Red side of the house to a generation of oblivion. But Shore?

Yet Peter Shore was a mainstay of Labour cabinets and shadow cabinets over three decades and was in the running to become Labour leader after Jim Callaghan resigned. He was also, as many readers will recall, MP for the Stepney constituency (in its various guises) for 33 years, surviving general elections, boundary changes and — latterly — a brutal campaign to have him deselected. Yet he was never meant to be an MP at all.

Shore was born in Yarmouth in 1924, the son of a merchant navy captain, then educated at Quarry Bank grammar school in Liverpool. It was a solid middle class start — he would win a place at Cambridge — but the poverty he saw in pre-War Liverpool made a deep impact. After his war service in the RAF, he joined the Labour party, quickly establishing himself as one of the brightest minds, first heading up the party’s research department, then becoming responsible for party policy, from 1959.

Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson

Shore was to the left of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, and his open wearing of CND badges around Labour HQ didn’t endear him to his boss. But when Gaitskell died, tragically, unexpectedly, in 1963, Harold Wilson became party leader and increasingly relied on Shore for ideas. And when Stepney MP Walter ‘Stoker’ Edwards (a Whitechapel docker and the first serving naval rating to be elected to parliament) announced his retirement, Shore was swiftly parachuted in to the safe Labour seat. Edwards, poignantly, would die on the day of the 1964 general election.

The intellectual Shore was a very different type of politician, but fiercely protective of British jobs. He supported nationalisation, prices and incomes policies, import controls and national planning. As trade secretary ten years later he would even oppose Freddie Laker’s Skytrain, arguing that it would undermine British Airways. “It is easy enough to put on a private bus service from Marble Arch to Westminster and make it pay, but one knows very well that this will be done only at the expense of London Transport,” he declared. He would later call the Thatcher government’s programme of privatisation “public asset stripping”.

Today, it seems impossibly controlling, but Shore believed there were huge dangers in liberating banks and multinational businesses from tight control. One Conservative journalist said that “Peter Shore was the only possible Labour party leader of whom a Conservative leader had cause to walk in fear”.

Denis Healey

Denis Healey

 

But it was for his opposition to the Common Market he is best remembered. The battle over ‘Europe’ creates some strange alliances, and historical positions shift. It was Tory prime minister Edward Heath who had taken Britain into Europe in 1972, while the Labour Party (at least below Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet level) were largely opposed. And so it was that in 1975, Stepney MP Peter Shore found himself on the ‘No’ side, campaigning to leave the Common Market alongside Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, but with the tacit backing of much of the Labour membership. Also campaigning were ‘rivers of blood’ Tory veteran Enoch Powell (by now out of the Conservative Party and become an Ulster Unionist MP), the Communist Party and the National Front.

On the ‘Yes’ side meanwhile, were the Labour big guns of Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins, plus most of the parliamentary Conservative Party … including its newly elected leader Margaret Thatcher.

He challenged, unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership — in the end it went to Michael Foot. But increasingly battles were fought closer to home, with the Stepney party fighting to deselect their MP — support for the Falklands War and opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament were just two positions that enraged local activists. And having doggedly held his seat during Labour’s 18 wilderness years, Shore called it a day just as the party approached power once more. With the 1997 election nearing, the veteran MP — now in his seventies and wearied by repeated attempts to oust him from his seat — gave it up. The redrawn constituency was won by Labour’s Oona King.

There’s a strange postscript to Baron Shore of Stepney’s dogged fight against Europe (the concept rather than the place, that is). This year, Shore’s widow Liz, now 85, defected from the Labour party to stand for UKIP in Cornwall, alongside her daughter and son-in-law. The Shores are still battling Europe then … though not in a way the ‘lost prophet’ of the Labour party might have hoped.

The obituaries for Shore in 2001 were less than generous. He was described as “sticking intelligently to the wrong guns for as long as anyone can remember”; when he was made head of the short-lived Economic Affairs Department, that post was described by Tory Iain Macleod as “a mink-lined kennel for Wilson’s favourite poodle”; Denis Healey described him as “Harold’s lapdog”; even Wilson himself said he had over-promoted Shore and that he was “not up to it”. And one writer reminds us that, having jousted for the Labour leadership in the mid-seventies he was, just a few years later, voted “12th most effective backbencher”.

Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell

Perhaps the truth was that Shore was just too honest and never very good (or remotely interested) in playing the power game. One of the guns he stuck to was an immovable support for the Solidarnosc union (not universally popular in the Labour party). The passage of time, however, has a way of rewriting history. If Peter Shore wasn’t always right, the Stepney MP wasn’t entirely wrong either.

 

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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One Response to Peter Shore — Labour’s forgotten prophet

  1. Chris Patten says:

    I still love the theory that the KGB assassinated Gaitskell to ensure that their asset Wilson became leader.

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